Short reviews of books I have recently read and really enjoyed.
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout: this is a novel I wish I had written because it is so masterful despite its brevity and simple setting. I’ve enjoyed all of Elizabeth’s Strout’s novels, starting with Olive Kitteridge (because I had watched the series, which is damn fine in itself with Frances McDormand playing grumpy Olive so well), then working backwards and ending up with her latest, Lucy Barton. There is no doubt that Lucy Barton is Strout’s finest, with the quality of writing highlighting her ability to capture the essence of a fraught relationship in such a short novel.
Lucy Barton is in hospital recuperating from a mysterious disease. Her mother, to whom she hasn’t spoken for years, comes to visit her and over five days stays at Lucy’s bedside virtually all the time, forcing the two of them to talk. They gossip about people in Lucy’s hometown, they reminisce about events that happened when Lucy grew up; the conversation seems light yet the shadow of their complicated relationship hovers in the background. They avoid subjects that might hurt them and that aren’t talked about in their family; they don’t talk about Lucy’s loneliness, or her unhappy childhood; they don’t mention the poverty and the bullying.
What lies beneath every conversation and every scene in the book, however, is love: the complicated, fierce love Lucy has for her mother despite what has happened in her past, and the primal love for a child that her mother can’t deny.
“It was the sound of my mother’s voice I most wanted; what she said didn’t matter … I feel that people may not understand that my mother could never say the words I love you. I feel that people may not understand: It was all right.”
This is a beautiful novel, with finely-tuned, sparse prose that never turns over-emotional or florid, an exquisite book from an author at the top of her game.
This Must be the Place by Maggie O’ Farrell: I believe this is Maggie O’ Farrell’s best novel yet. I have always enjoyed her books, but she has notched up a level in this book, portraying a complicated marriage from different viewpoints and with different techniques.
It is, at the bottom of it, the story of an American linguistic, Daniel Hoffman, who is married to a reclusive ex-film star, Claudette, and living in a remote part of rural Ireland. When Daniel hears of the death of a previous girlfriend, he is compelled to go back to America to find out the truth of this old relationship, and by doing so, disrupts every part of his life. The novel travels over continents and time, portraying a vast array of characters, but because of the deftness of O’ Farrell’s prose, never once was I confused or exasperated.
Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave: While I don’t think this novel is nearly as masterful as the ones above, it is a fantastic read and I would recommend it to anyone looking for good love story set in WWII. It is essentially about the relationship between four main characters: there’s Mary who volunteers for the war effort, partly to shock her upper class family, partly to give some depth to her socialite life. She hopes to be made a headmistress, yet is assigned to be a teacher in a school for unwanted children: either disabled or mixed race. Hilda, Mary’s equally upper-class friend, also gets involved in the war effort, and becomes horribly disfigured through it.
Mary starts a relationship with Tom, an education administrator, however she is irresistibly drawn to Tom’s best friend, Alistair, when she meets him. Alistair, an art restorer, enlists and goes off to battle, for which he is barely prepared. The war creates a whole new world for each of these characters and how they cope (or don’t cope) creates the background for the interplay of their relationships.
Cleave is particularly good at depicting the social structure of Britain at the time of the war, and he uses the class system as a backdrop for highlighting the racism and snobbishness of society. He also excels at describing the war, depicting London during the blitz and battles in Malta so well that the horrors of it came alive, but at the same time manages to bring humour into some of the scenes. Despite the odd cliche and the tendency to sentimentality, he has written a wonderful contemporary love story set in historical times.
Penguin Lessons: What I learned from a Remarkable Bird by Tom Michell: sometimes you just need a book to cheer you up and restore your faith in humanity again. This is one such book; it’s a memoir written by a young Englishman who goes to teach in Argentina and on the way finds a tar-soaked Magellan penguin on a beach in Uruguay. Deciding to try and save its life, he takes it back to his rented flat and manages to clean it. When he returns it to the beach and puts it in the sea, however, it resolutely follows him and will not leave him however hard he tries to escape it, and so Tom decides to smuggle it over the border and take it with him to the private boys’ school in Argentina. The penguin, now named Juan Salvador, takes pride of place in the school and is doted upon by the boys and staff. The book is illustrated with sketches of the penguin, although justice was not done to them by my Kindle. It is an utterly delightful, funny, poignant, heart-warming story about how an animal (even a penguin) can have a profound effect on people’s lives.